President Lincoln Reviews Court Martial Cases

February 9, 1864

President Lincoln meets to review pending military justice cases with Judge Advocate

Joseph Holt.  Artist Francis B. Carpenter observes the meeting “with Mr. Lincoln in his study. The morning was devoted to the Judge-Advocate-General, who had a large number of court-martial cases to submit to tho President. Never had I realized what it was to have power, as on this occasion. As case after case was presented to Mr. Lincoln, one stroke of his pen confirmed or commuted the sentence of death. In several instances Judge Holt referred to extenuating circumstances, — extreme youth, previous good conduct, or recommendations to mercy. Every excuse of this kind, having a foundation in fact, was instantly seized upon by the President, who, taking the document containing the sentence, would write upon the back of it the lightest penalty consistent with any degree of justice. As he added the date to one of these papers, he remarked casually, varying the subject of conversation, “Does your mind, Judge Holt, associate events with dates? Every time this morning that I have had occasion to write the day of the month, the thought has come up, ‘This was General Harrison’s birthday.'” One of the cases brought forward at this time I recollect distinctly. The man’s name was Burroughs; he had been a notorious spy; convicted and sentenced to death, a strong effort had been made in his behalf by powerful friends. It was an aggravated case, but an impression had evidently been made upon the President by the strength and pertinacity of the appeal. As Judge Holt opened the record, he stated that a short time previous Burroughs had attempted to escape from confinement, and was shot dead in the act by the sentinel on guard. With an expression of relief, Mr. Lincoln rejoined, ‘I ought to be obliged to him for taking his fate into his own hands; he has saved me a deal of trouble.’

Carpenter recalled: “When the clock struck twelve, Mr. Lincoln drew back from the table, and with a stretch of his long arms, remarked, ‘I guess we will go no farther with these cases to-day; I am a little tired, and the Cabinet will be coming in soon.” “I believe, by the by,” he added, “that I have not yet had my breakfast, — this business has been so absorbing that it has crowded everything else out of my mind.’ And so ended the work of one morning; simple in its detail, but pregnant with hope and joy, darkness and death, to many human beings.”  After the Cabinet meeting, President Lincoln went to have his photograph taken by Mathew Brady:

At three o’clock the President was to accompany me, by appointment, to Brady’s photographic galleries on Pennsylvania Avenue. The carriage had been ordered, and Mrs. Lincoln, who was to accompany us, had come down at the appointed hour, dressed for the ride, when one of those vexations, incident to all households, occurred. Neither carriage or coachman was to be seen. The President and myself stood upon the threshold of the door under the portico, awaiting the result of the inquiry for the coachman, when a letter was put into his hand. While he was reading this, people were passing, as is customary, up and down the. promenade, which leads through the grounds to the War Department, crossing, of course, the portico. My attention was attracted to an approaching party, apparently a countryman, plainly dressed, with his wife and two little boys, who had evidently been straying about, looking at the places of public interest in the city. As they reached the portico, the father, who was in advance, caught sight of the tall figure of Mr. Lincoln, absorbed in his letter. His wife and the little boys were ascending the steps. The man stopped suddenly, put out his hand with a ‘hush’ to his family, and, after a moment’s gaze, he bent down and whispered to them, — ‘There is the President!’ Then leaving them, he slowly made a half circuit around Mr. Lincoln, watching him intently all the while. At this point, having finished his letter, the President turned to me, and said: “Well, we will not wait any longer for the carriage; it won’t hurt you and me to walk down.” The countryman here approached very diffidently, and asked if he might be allowed to take the President by the hand; after which, “Would he extend the same privilege to his wife and little boys?” Mr. Lincoln good-naturedly approached the latter, who had remained where they were stopped, and, reaching down, said a kind word to the bashful little fellows, who shrank close up to their mother, and did not reply. This simple act filled the father’s cup full. “The Lord is with you, Mr. President,” he said reverently; and then, hesitating a moment, he added, with strong emphasis, “and the people too, sir; and the people too!”

The walk, of a mile or more, was made very agreeable and interesting to me by a variety of stories, of which Mr. Lincoln’s mind was so prolific. Something was said soon after we started about the penalty which attached to high positions in a democratic government — the tribute these filling them were compelled to pay to the public. “Great men,” said Mr. Lincoln, “have various estimates. When Daniel Webster made his tour through the West years ago, he visited Springfield among other places, where great preparation had been made to receive him. As the procession was going through the town, a barefooted little darkey boy. pulled the sleeve of a man named T., and asked, “’ What the folks were all doing down the street?’ ‘Why, Jack,’ was the’ reply, ‘the biggest man in the world is coming.’ Now, there lived in Springfield a man by the name of G., — a very corpulent man. Jack darted off down the street, but presently returned, with a very disappointed air. ‘Well, did you see him?’ inquired T. ‘Yes,’ returned Jack; ‘ but laws — he ain’t half as big as old G.'”

Shortly afterward, he spoke of Mr. [Thomas] Ewing, who was in both President Harrison’s and President Taylor’s cabinet. “Those men,” said he, “were, you know, when elected, both of advanced years, — sages. Ewing had received, in some way, the nickname of ‘ Old Solitude.’ Soon after the formation of Taylor’s cabinet, Webster and Ewing happened to meet at an evening party. As they approached each other, Webster, who was in fine spirits, uttered, in his deepest bass tones, the well known lines, —

“O Solitude, where are the charms

That sages have seen in thy face?”

President Lincoln holds his regular Tuesday night reception – with the not-so-regular appearance of oldest son Robert Todd Lincoln.

Published in: on February 9, 2014 at 9:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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